Not every masterpiece winds up in a museum in New York City or Paris. Seeing great art doesn’t have to mean bright lights, big cities and an even bigger budget. Smaller cities are able to cultivate a creative vibe in thriving art communities that are producing and sharing gorgeous art in its many forms, some of it in smaller museums and galleries, but much of it in public spaces just waiting for you to discover them.
Gifted and inventive artists thrive in these small cities, taking inspiration from the unique people and gorgeous scenery around them. Spend a few days discovering all the artistic gems to be found off the beaten path in places you never thought of as art destinations before.
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Often thought of as a vacation community on the shores of Lake Michigan about 40 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, Muskegon is home to one of the best and most underrated art museums in the Midwest. It is more than 100 years old and home to more than 5,000 pieces of art from artists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. In the midst of a nearly $10 million expansion, the permanent exhibition space will more than double by 2023.
“Le Ferme” by Camille Pissarro at the Muskegon Museum of Art
Muskegon Museum of Art
While the indoor art is worth the time to visit, a spring or summer day in Muskegon is well spent meandering through town to find dozens of pieces of outdoor art. Find traditional honorary statues and unique contemporary sculptures, as well as murals and architecture.
Edward Hopper’s “New York Restaurant” (1922) at the Muskegon Museum of Art.
Muskegon Museum of Art
True art fans visit in late June to experience the Lakeshore Art Festival, featuring more than 300 juried fine art and specialty craft exhibitors as well as interactive art for children and adults, performers and food vendors. The award-winning festival highlights all the best of Muskegon as art takes over the streets.
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The Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas
Towns don’t get much smaller than Lucas. Fewer than 400 people call this farm community in the middle of the plains home. Heading west out of Kansas City on I-70 on the way to Denver, Lucas is just 15 miles off the freeway but far from anything you’ve ever experienced.
Known as the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, Lucas is a haven for self-taught artists, many of whom started creating in their retirement years. The Grassroots Art Center curates exhibits from two dozen Midwest artists and fosters the legacy that Civil War veteran S.P. Dinsmoor started at his home, The Garden of Eden, in 1907. The oldest intact folk art environment in the United States, the house is constructed of 27-foot “logs” of local limestone, and the grounds feature more than 150 figures. Now considered one of the most important art environments in the world, it underwent a major restoration 10 years ago and remains a big draw to this small town.
Nearby is Miller’s Park, a collection of miniature mountains and buildings built using rocks brought home from around the U.S. between the 1930s and the 1960s.
Erika Nelson’s “World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate”
In addition to the Garden of Eden, Lucas is home to Erika Nelson’s World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate, Eric Abraham’s Ceramic Flying Pig Studio, Florence Deebles Sculpture Rock Garden and Mri Pillar’s 3-D art of recycled products. There’s also the giant, gaudy and brilliant Bowl Plaza public restroom, which has been called the quirkiest in the world. Enter through a 14-foot-high bedazzled lid and marvel at the mosaic walls. Don’t be surprised when you spend an hour inspecting all the details at this public restroom.
Taos, New Mexico
Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico.
Perhaps the country’s most well-known artist colony, Taos has drawn creatives to Northern New Mexico since the late 1800s. Most famously, Georgia O’Keeffe made Taos home for the final four decades of her life.
Now, more than 140 working artists make up the Taos Artist Organization, there are four different art museums here, and in just a half-mile on Canyon Road, visitors will find more than 100 galleries, artist studios and public art installations.
Museum Hill is home to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. In addition, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum includes not just the largest repository of her work and personal materials but also an education annex and her home in nearby Abiquiu.
A must-visit is the Palace of the Governors, where local New Mexico artists from surrounding pueblos set up stalls to sell their art, crafts and jewelry. A part of the Native American Artisan Program it’s an opportunity to support the artists directly while speaking to them about their creations.
The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
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The biggest little city has so much more to offer than the flashing lights of the casinos. There are great museums, including the Nevada Museum of Art and the National Automobile Museum, but the big draw here is public art.
The Downtown and the Midtown neighborhoods are home to more than 100 murals, and the city is dotted with sculptures, many of which are products of the yearly Burning Man festival. Visit the sculpture garden in Bicentennial Park or stroll the Sparks Art Walk. At night, head to Reno’s Neon Line, where you’ll find Burning Man sculptures and vintage neon signs alight. Finally, plan to be in town in July for Artown, a month-long celebration chock-full of more than 500 artistic events in the area.
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In far western Massachusetts, just 40 miles southeast of Albany, NY, in the Berkshire Mountains, this idyllic town has inspired folk songs and art for many years. Literally depicted on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, it is also home to one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the country. The Red Lion Inn opened its doors in 1773 and has served this quaint town ever since.
Norman Rockwell’s studio in Stockbridge, Mass.
The Norman Rockwell Museum is home to nearly 600 original works of art by Rockwell, as well as his archives, a collection of more than 100,000 items. The museum displays all 323 of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. In addition, there are the photos of friends and neighbors he used as inspiration and the large-scale paintings and watercolors he did in preparation for his illustrations.
On another end of the artistic spectrum, Stockbridge was home to one of America’s most important public sculptors. Chesterwood is the summer home, studio and gardens of Daniel Chester French, who is most well-known for sculpting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The formal gardens on site are of his own design. Make sure to visit the sculpting studio, with 26-foot ceilings and an ingenious system that allowed French to roll his sculptures outside.
Located in an old marble quarry, TurnPark is an open-air museum and sculpture garden that features art primarily from the Soviet Nonconformist Art movement of the 1950s to the 1980s. There’s also the Guild of Berkshire Artists, who lead seminars, talks, exhibits, Plein-air events and demonstrations to educate the public.
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This small city in the northwest corner of Wyoming is most well-known for one of its founding residents, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and nearby Yellowstone National Park. The town serves as the embodiment and celebration of the old “Wild West,” and part of that includes celebrating the art of the American West.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West houses five museums and a research library featuring art and artifacts of the American West. The five museums include the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indians Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum and, most notably, the Whitney Western Art Museum. The museum has works from artists like Albert Bierstadt and N.C. Wyeth, as well as replica studios from Frederic Remington and Alexander Phimister Proctor, to show off not just their art but also their techniques.
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The Cody County Art League is not only a physical home for art education in the area, but they represent more than 200 amateur to professional artists in all mediums. Visit the third week of September to experience the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale as part of Rendezvous Royale, a week-long celebration of arts with workshops, lectures, painting classes, studio tours and more.
The gateway to Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg is a tourist destination in East Tennessee where an arts community thrives in the beautiful surroundings.
The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community is a series of shops and galleries along an 8-mile two-laned loop that is the largest independent organization of artisans in the United States. Visitors can see musical instruments made, pottery thrown, paintings in progress and more as they visit with the more than 100 working artists selling their wares. There is something for everyone as the community creates visual and decorative art, fashion, jewelry and more. The community is part of the Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail.
In July and October, the town hosts the Craftsmen’s Fairs. The juried shows last more than a week and boast more than 200 booths of handmade and artisan creations.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
The art in Eureka Springs, a town nestled in the Ozarks along the Missouri and Arkansas border, is vast. It starts on Main Street, where ornate Victorian buildings are just part of why the entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Colorful architecture abounds here, and that’s just the beginning. There are more than 400 working artists and dozens of galleries here.
Crochet works are displayed on trees in Eureka Springs Music Park.
Start at the Art Community Eureka Springs (ACES), where nine beautiful buildings house 12 different studios and foster a community of creativity and creation. In May, visit the Festival of the Arts, where the city becomes an arts village for more than 350 artists. The highlight is the ArtRageous Parade that kicks things off, but events continue throughout the month. In addition, the second Saturday of each month is for gallery strolls through the city’s historic downtown.
Plan ahead and know that you’ll be inspired, so sign up for a class at the impressive Eureka Springs School of the Arts, which started as a school without a home and now boasts a 55-acre campus that fosters art in the area.
Key West, Florida
Key West’s Mallory Square boasts many tourist attractions and includes a sculpture garden.
The full string of the Florida Keys is home to sensational artists, and visitors with time should absolutely travel to as many of the islands as they can. But for those with a limited time frame, it’s hard to beat the more than 40 galleries packed into the seven square miles of Key West.
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America’s Southernmost point was a haven for Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman, among others, and it’s not difficult to see why this laid-back paradise was inspiring and rejuvenating. Learn about local history through the 36 bronze busts at the Sculpture Garden in Mallory Square or visit the gallery of the Key West Art Center, which features the work of more than 50 local Florida Keys artists.
In addition, the city has hosted a monthly art walk in the White Street Arts District since 1999. Visit on the third Thursday of every month as galleries and art businesses open their doors for exhibitions, demonstrations and free libations.
It’s not necessary to arrive super early at the tiny Key West airport for departures, but make sure you build in some time to examine the art covering nearly every inch of the place, both inside and out. There are murals on the cement parking barriers, ornate hanging pieces and even etched glass.
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